On Unlearning and Relearning
by Simon Soon

[fig. 1] Ayer Itam Dam, 1974, gouache on paper, 55.5 x 76 cm

A nondescript landscape [fig. 1] that has survived from artist Wong Hoy Cheong’s secondary school years in Penang stands for the beginning to which we return. In the 1974 painting, executed in a style that does not seemingly convey any striking form of originality, one could identify stock features commonly found in the landscape genre—the green foliage of tropical exuberance, the craggy boulders that form a seemingly untouched terrain and a slow-moving body of cooling water. The view suggests an untouched and pristine natural environment. The title, however, tells us that the picture depicts a scene from the Ayer Itam Dam, a dam completed just 12 years before, at the cost of M$15 million. It was the first major infrastructural project undertaken by the City Council of George Town since the independence of Malaya in 1957.
50,000 cubic yards of concrete were used to create the dam embankment. None of these signs of modern infrastructure are captured in this landscape painting, for the eye was trained to see landscape as something else—a world absent of human intervention.

Therein lies the rub. For what our eyes are trained to see and not see make up society’s artistic and cultural conventions. In returning to this painting, made during Hoy Cheong’s secondary school years, we are in turn made aware of the kind of aesthetic transformation that was to take place later on in his life, where the gritting of teeth and the dust beneath our feet would change the tone and tenor of his art-making.

[fig. 2] Vitrine Of Contemporary Events: Study for Parchment I, 1999,
ink on parchment of dust, 19 x 25 cm

Compare this with a study, Vitrine of Contemporary Events: Study for Parchment I (1999) [fig. 2], made by collecting dust from the vacuum cleaner in the office of the now-defunct Centre for Advanced Design (CENFAD), where Hoy Cheong taught in the late 1990s. In pressing the dust into a parchment on which is then printed Article 10 of the Malaysian constitution, the artist makes a direct comment on the sacking and incarceration of then-Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, who spoke up against Mahathir, and the repression of the Reformasi movement. In Hoy Cheong’s reckoning, this was a violation of the freedom of assembly, association, and speech. It was akin to the nation’s principles and values being trampled on like a doormat. How does one make such a transition and what does this shift in attitude and art-making signify?

In a recent WhatsApp exchange with the artist, as he made his way across South America to pay tribute to iconic heroes of the political and cultural left, Hoy Cheong mentioned he was rereading Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Heart. It kept him company on his pilgrimage. Picking up the slim volume, a passage that leapt out to me is Freire’s heartfelt rumination of his own personal return:

My childhood backyard has been unveiling itself to many other spaces—spaces that are not necessarily other yards. Spaces where this man of today sees the child of yesterday in himself and learns to see better what he had seen before. To see again what had already been seen before always implies seeing angles that were not perceived before. Thus, a posterior view of the world can be done in a more critical, less naive, and more rigorous way.1

In some sense, On Unlearning and Relearning as an exhibition is about the changes in Wong Hoy Cheong’s artistic practice across four decades. To review and take stock of this is, as a consequence, a kind of report on knowledge. It lays bare the conditions that have spurred Hoy Cheong towards a seeming eclecticism, an eclecticism that would see him make aesthetic leaps and departures from the run-of-the-mill landscape painting that was produced on a hot languorous afternoon many years ago, as a teenager who took up the brush and tried his hand at painting.

After that, Hoy Cheong’s output has turned inter-disciplinary—it moves from drawing to performance art, painting to installation, video documentary to photography to film. There is catholicity in his practice as an artist who emerged in an age of what art historian Rosalind Krauss would call the post-medium condition. Post-medium is defined here as ‘every material support [...] will now be leveled, reduced to a system of pure equivalency by the homogenizing principle of commodification.’2 In this instance, the danger that an artist, who practices an unexamined form of eclecticism, faces is that what the artist produces runs the risk of collapsing into both moral and aesthetic failure.

This was the precarious condition in which contemporary art, coming after postmodernism’s value relativity and the loss of the master narrative, had to grapple with. Hoy Cheong’s increasing prominence as a contemporary artist on the global stage within this period is no exception. He stopped easel painting in 1991, turning instead to a multidisciplinary practice. Internationalism as a ‘singular’ ambition and value vis-à-vis the USSR also fractured into warring cultural, ethnic and religious identities.

In a sense, such a development paralleled the growth of contemporary art as a global phenomenon from the 1990s onwards. The new global network created new opportunities for many artists, who were beginning to be noticed by overseas institutions. Biennales and other global surveys became platforms de rigeur which helped springboard artistic practices from the margins into the centre. Such mechanism and opportunity allowed many artists to produce artworks that are more experimental in nature. Under such conditions, artists that did not fall easily under the dictates of national cultural policies were also given a space of prominence. They no longer needed to respond solely within the teleological remit from the kind of art history written through national cultural institutions in order to succeed or gain fame.

The irony was that the opening up of such vistas paralleled the fall of the Soviet Union, and the triumph and vindication of capitalism as the only seemingly viable global economic model. The connection between the unchallenged neoliberal economic order and the global expansion of the culture industry is something that has not been thoroughly examined. Curators instead liked to believe that cultural institutions became a bastion of an embattled ideology. The retreat and transformation of the political left into culture and the popularisation of critical theory became the dominant narrative of the avant-garde in the age of advanced capitalism.

Ultimately, it is this very institution that Hoy Cheong would slowly turn his back on, even as his practice was gaining notice. I sense that in many ways he remains always uncomfortable with how closely contemporary art as a culture industry, seen from this from new global configuration, skirts tenuously and ambiguously close to an economic system that is fundamentally oppressive and unjust.

In recent years, art has taken a back seat as Hoy Cheong takes on a more active role in local political action and policy-making. The occasion to take stock of four decades of art-making through his paper-based work signals some form of closure. In seIecting works that could offer a glimpse into Hoy Cheong’s sensibility and tendencies as an artist, I have come to the conclusion that even as his works engaged with different media, they are underpinned by a tacit recognition of the study as a sustained form of inquiry into the subject of his art-making.

Understood as such, a formative text in shaping Hoy Cheong’s view of the world, provides some contextual illumination. For Freire notes, 'For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.’3

In this sense, there is remarkable consistency in Hoy Cheong’s turning to sketching and later paper-based work as a kind of scaffold to test out ideas for larger and more ambitious conceptual projects. A large part of this concern can be traced back to Hoy Cheong’s art school training, where he studied under John Grillo, a student of abstract painter Hans Hofmann. Hofmann’s theory of the push-and-pull would become central to Hoy Cheong’s pictorial studies [fig. 3]. Departing from Renaissance, one-point, linear perspective, Hofmann argued that the compositional push-and-pull of form produces visual tension that evokes in the viewer an experience of depth and motion on the flat surface of a canvas.

[fig. 3] Figure Study, c.1990–1994,
charcoal on paper, 34 x 21 cm

Even if Hoy Cheong would later abandon painting to experiment with other media, the approach was not entirely dispensed. As a conceptual tool, the push-and- pull could easily be transliterated into its philosophical equivalent—dialectics. What is achieved through the use of contrast and opposites is the production of psychological depth that could in turn speak forcefully as a response to the conditions of contemporary life. In this sense, he was also taken by the writings of hermeneutics by German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, especially of what Hans-Georg Gadamer calls the fusion of horizons as central to the act of interpretation. Understanding emerges through the act of reading, not in order for an objective meaning to surface. Instead, the interpreter gains a deeper empathy for the subject matter through the production of a common horizon.

[fig. 4] Women of Chow Kit (5), 1990,
felt pen and pencil on paper, 17 x 13.5 cm

When offering a working definition of contemporary art, Hoy Cheong spoke out as early as 1989 in a seminar paper of a need to unyoke artistic practice from a mannered understanding of tradition. Presented at the First ASEAN Symposium on Aesthetics, he rejected the prevalent tendencies of cultural essentialism that he saw in many contemporary artists who engaged rhetorically with tradition. Instead, he called out, ‘We need more of the present, more empathy for the living and breathing people of our society. We need to confront the fabric of everyday life and not be tangled in the cobwebs of the past. As it is, we have enough myths and legends, pucuk rebungs, dragons and phoenixes, batik motifs and wayang kulit’. Instead, he called for a renewed sensitivity to the new denizens [fig. 4] of everyday spaces, ‘the anonymous singers in Karaoke lounges, the medicine men and prostitutes in the backlanes of Chow Kit, Mat Rocks and heavy-metal music, the squatters of Sungei Way, the computer salesman, the bank auditor, the travel agent—they too make up our culture.’4

If existing bodies of literature about Hoy Cheong’s art have prioritised his political/conceptual framework and the multimedia trajectory of his practice, this exhibition casts the artist in a different light. On Unlearning and Relearning sees Hoy Cheong as an artist who is, by equal measure, technically sensitive to the demands of process as a method to translate ideas, observations and visions into works of art.

Featured in this exhibition is a small seIection of works from his years as a student as well as prints from early on in Hoy Cheong’s career. Then, there are preparatory sketches for projects, some of them are incomplete or unrealised. Later, as Hoy Cheong began to paint less and less, his studies stood as prototypes or experiments, sometimes as sketches and notes for how he would conceive his installation work. For it is inconceivable for Hoy Cheong to divorce the making of art with political action, even if these are not altogether similar as forms of action.

Here, Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed is again instructive. ‘I cannot think for others or without others, nor can others think for me. Even if the people’s thinking is superstitious or naive, it is only as they rethink their assumptions in action that they can change. Producing and acting upon their own ideas—not consuming those of others.’5

In turn we may view Hoy Cheong’s art practice as a kind of social compact; it was irreducibly social in that his art was always centred on a need to engage with society at large. Not to think on behalf of them or think apart from the teeming masses, but to create conditions through which knowledge can be remade, shared and transmitted, where passions, hopes, dreams and desires are argued fervently—whether this was through education, through politics or through art.


1 Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Heart, New York: Continuum, 2000, pp.37–38.

2 See Rosalind Krauss, A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition, London: Thames and Hudson, 2000, p.15.

3 Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, first published 1968, New York: Continuum, 1993, p.72.

4 Wong Hoy Cheong, ‘Contradictions and Fallacies in Search of a Voice: Contemporary Art in Post- Colonial Culture’, First ASEAN Symposium on Aesthetics, Delia Paul and Sharifah Fatimah Zubir, eds., Kuala Lumpur: ASEAN Committee on Culture and Information, 1989, pp.122–123.
5 Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, first published 1968, New York: Continuum, 1993, p.108.

Simon Soon is a researcher and Senior Lecturer in the Visual Arts Department of the Cultural Centre, University of Malaya. He completed a PhD in Art History at the University of Sydney under an Australian Postgraduate Award scholarship. His thesis ‘What is Left of Art?’ investigates the spatial-visual cultures at the intersection between left-leaning politicised art movements and the emergent modern publics of Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines from 1950s–1970s. His broader areas of interest include comparative modernities in art, histories of the built environment, and art historiography. He has written on various topics related to 20th-century art across Asia and occasionally curates exhibitions, most recently Love Me in My Batik: Modern Batik Art from Malaysia and Beyond. He is also co-editor of Narratives of Malaysian Art Vol. 4. From 2015–16, he is a participant in the Power Institute’s ‘Ambitious Alignments: New Histories of Southeast Asian Art’, funded by Getty Foundation’s ‘Connecting Art Histories’ initiative. He is also an editorial member of SOUTHEAST OF NOW: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art, a peer-review journal published by NUS Press and a team member of Malaysia Design Archive, a repository on visual cultures from late 19th century to the present day.

LATIHAN: SeIected Studies by Wong Hoy Cheong was published in conjunction with the exhibition,
On Unlearning and Relearning held at OUR ArtProjects.

For more information or if you would like to purchase a copy of the publication, kindly contact liza@ourartprojects.com